THE news this week that Ken Bates’ valedictory speech at Chelsea included the promise he had "one great project" left in him might well have reminded Partick Thistle fans of one of the eccentric businessman’s first ambitious enterprises.
As ever with prototypes, there were misjudgements made, perhaps the greatest one being that Bates could be the saviour of a club so firmly in a rut. The then Chelsea chairman invested 100,000 in the club and took Thistle over in June 1986. While Diego Maradona was weaving spells in Mexico, a yarn only a club like Partick Thistle could spin was about to unfold in Maryhill - one which pre-dated more recent surreal flirtations with Namibian wonderkid Quinton Jacobs and ex-Big Brother contestant Jorge Cadete.
Bates arrived at a press conference to declare "there is no way Thistle will be used as a nursery club for Chelsea", and the rest is the kind of history which ought to be recounted in a ghoulish museum. Yet the germ of a good idea had been present. "All the stories about him being involved simply to make money are very extravagant," says former Firhill chairman Miller Reid. "The main reason he got involved is that Chelsea had players in their reserve and youth teams and the idea was to harden these players up a bit. Instead of playing for the stiffs down in London what they would do was come up and play with us for a season. I look at the papers and see what Chelsea are up to now. Imagine if we could have some of their second string players now!"
There was in any case a certain synergy already present between the clubs: under-achievement came easy, as did the love of the neutral swayed, in Chelsea’s case, by style and the fact Thistle could offer such an attractive antidote to the Old Firm. Today, of course, there is less to link them. Chelsea still retain thoughts of a league and European Cup double, while Thistle peer, sadly, into the First Division abyss. One difference which is less painful for Jags fans to observe is their contrasting activities this weekend. While Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea kick their expensively-booted heels after FA Cup defeat in the last round to Arsenal, Thistle aim to reach the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup for only the third time in 30 years.
Today’s match with Dunfermline at Firhill will likely pass without any acknowledgement of Bates’ passing at Chelsea - and yet, for a spell, Thistle, and Glasgow, was his playground. Like any child armed with a new toy, Bates’ interest soon began to drift. Yet his presence had proved formidable, and even now when the name is evoked, as it has been this week, there is a compulsion on the part of the Thistle fan to shiver, as if having drawn up outside the motel owned by Ken’s namesake, Norman. For Bates was the eccentric who hated any club employee wearing on their feet anything other than black shoes, who sent his own accountants up from London to scour the Thistle books in search of evidence confirming largesse and who appointed a manager who did not want to be manager - with the predictably disastrous results.
Thistle finished eighth that season in the First Division, bookended by Forfar and Clyde and not far enough away from relegation to the Second Division for comfort. "Instantly forgettable" is how even club historian Robert Reid describes the 1986/87 campaign. Off the pitch, however, it was anything but.
The at-times equally flamboyant Reid was the man whose contacts drew Bates to Scotland. He was a regular visitor to London, and once paid his way into Stamford Bridge with the intention of offering Mo Johnston to Chelsea after the game. "They had just signed a big striker by the name of Kerry Dixon," he remembers. "He scored a hat-trick and I just went straight home again."
Soon, though, Bates would not just buy a single Thistle player, he would buy the club. "Bates used an interesting phrase this week when he talked about the difference in cultures between the east, where Roman Abramovich is from, and the west. That struck home to me. He was more used to a very hands-on approach in terms of players than we were used to in Scotland. His signing of Derek Johnstone as player- manager was the main argument which suggested Bates was not the man for the job.
"Bates appointed him against the advice from us. I had spoken to Derek, and he said he did not want the job. I said this to Ken, and he replied: ‘Well, it’s f***ing well my club’. That was the difference of cultures. He was used to doing everything, including signing players."
John Hansen, a former Thistle player and the brother of Alan, was a board member at the time of Bates’ ownership. He remembers the reign as being flawed from day one. "We did the deal at what is now the Holiday Inn in Glasgow," he says. "We walked through the door to meet him and just by chance Derek Johnstone was walking out. We went inside and signed the deal. Bates’ opening words were: ‘By the way, I have found a new manager for you’. We told him we already had a manager. He said: ‘I know you do, but this is a really good one. It’s Derek Johnstone’. We reminded him that he had told us right from the start he would not interfere, and he replied: ‘You didn’t believe that did you?’"
Johnstone was not the only recruit from Chelsea. Up, too, came Billy Dodds for his first taste of senior football in Scotland, as did the flying winger, Colin West. While Dodds scored four times in one game against East Fife, Johnstone’s increasing years and declining fitness led to only four appearances, and no goals. Under him, the side only won eight league games, with Johnstone sacked in March 1987 after four defeats on the trot.
Contacted yesterday, the Radio Clyde pundit had no great desire to return to a clearly unsatisfying period in his career. "I don’t want to talk about it," said Johnstone. "Not one of the best guys in history is our Ken." That Johnstone had no great enthusiasm for the task in hand can be deduced from the fact he has stayed resolutely off the managerial merry-go-round ever since.
Reid grew tired of Bates’ unpredictable ways, and left his unsalaried post as ‘chairman’ [due to regulations Bates could not occupy this post at both Chelsea and Thistle]. Now, however, the 57-year-old bears no grudges. "He invested 100,000 to get the shares and lent us 100,000 interest-free for players," offers Miller. "What more can you say? It was just that his style is not, shall we say, from the Harvard business school. I got angry with him eventually, but if I met him now I’d buy him a drink."